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How the World-Cafe Model Can Enhance Online Discussion

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Today's guest post is written by Stefani Hite, a professional learning designer working with organizations worldwide on improvement efforts and change processes, who lives in Philadelphia.

During the sudden shift to online meetings and remote work, there is definitely a concern over "Zoom fatigue" and "Webex weariness." It's important to remember that we need to consider structures that will reduce that fatigue and provide meaningful online experiences. 

Remote Professional Learning Challenges 
There's no question that teacher leadership is more important than ever, especially during times of crisis. Empowering teachers to step into leadership roles—both formal and informal— has a positive impact on students. In a 2017 study, Richard Ingersoll, et. al., found that when teachers play an important role in school improvement efforts, there is a close tie with improved student achievement. As Peter DeWitt wrote in 2014, "A school that has teacher and student voice as part of their practice can look at ... initiatives and make them better ... and stronger."

The NJEA Teacher Leader Academy is empowering teachers by focusing on the Teacher Leader Model Standards in an inquiry-oriented manner. It is a highly self-directed program where participants are expected to nurture and maintain relationships with their fellow cohort participants and their school-based colleagues. During the COVID-19 shutdown, the program had to transition to an online format out of necessity. However, the strong relationships that had previously been established allowed teachers to continue their collaboration even while in lockdown.

When your curriculum is heavily dependent on collaborative conversations and collective reflection, virtual learning poses an enormous challenge. In Module 2 of the program, a full cohort session had been scheduled, so program coordinator Rich Wilson shifted gears and decided to design a virtual world café experience. 

For those unfamiliar with the world café, it is a protocol that fosters diverse conversations around important topics. It is typically held as three rounds of discussion on questions of increasing complexity. Table groups of four participants spend time on each question and "harvest" their thinking into a summary statement that identifies the pattern or theme that emerged from the conversation. Between each round, groups are "shuffled" so that participants are able to connect with different people who bring a range of ideas and perspectives. 

Those who have participated in face-to-face world cafés appreciate the engaged nature of the experience. It is a useful tool that encourages a high level of participation based on its structure, helping to soften the often loud voices and raise up those who may not contribute regularly when in a large group.

The Importance of Intentional Design
To make this a meaningful experience online, we approached it with the same level of intensive design that we would have in a face-to-face session. First, we established a purpose for the session; participants must always be clear as to why they are spending their time in conversation together. From the purpose, we developed our questions that would guide each round. 

The questions must be important and worth exploring. We prefer questions that gradually increase in complexity, beginning with a broader and less personal question for Round 1, focusing it into more personal experiences in Round 2, and ultimately homing in on what the conversation might inspire for Round 3. We also explain how to harvest the thinking between each round so that we can capture patterns and themes that emerge during each conversation. "Harvest" is both a verb and a noun, and we do both to capture the essence of the conversation:

  • Group discussion: What patterns emerged during our conversation?
  • Group reflection: How best might we share what we noticed?
  • Sharing: Summative statement that captures the pattern or theme that will be shared with the group.

We had been concerned about the quality of an online conversational experience—but those fears were laid to rest immediately after Round 1 when one of the participants noted, "I know we all have places to go when our session is over, but I have to tell you that I could do this for hours. It's so great to be in these conversations!" Her sentiment was echoed by the other participants who used the "thumbs up" and "applause" icons to indicate their agreement.

To conduct the virtual world café, we used Zoom in order to bring the full group of 20 participants together for directions and then easily move them into breakout rooms for the conversational rounds. We asked each room to nominate a conversation "host" who would be responsible for guiding their thinking at the end and creating a summary statement that would capture patterns and themes. The "broadcast" feature in Zoom allowed us to post the question as well as time checks to keep the groups on track. 

When a conversational round was completed, the individual groups returned, and we asked the hosts to type their summary into the chat window to share with all the participants. This allowed participants in the full group to notice and share commonalities between their conversations. When it was time for the next round, we "shuffled" the participants into new conversation groups, and they repeated the pattern.

How Technology Enhanced the Experience
As facilitators, we found the technology made it easy to get folks into their conversations because no one had to physically move to a table. It was also a great benefit to have the "harvest" typed into the chat window so that we immediately have a digital record of the groups' thinking—something we typically accomplish on large format sticky notes (and then later transcribe).

We have used live world cafés with many different participant groups, including students. Our online experience with the teacher leaders inspired us to consider how virtual world cafés might be used to engage students—especially those new to remote learning. We have noticed a tendency for "Zoom lessons" to be lecture-oriented; the use of breakout rooms and intentional conversations could completely change that dynamic, creating meaningful opportunities for students to share and interact.

In reflecting on the entire experience, more benefits of the virtual environment emerged. One participant confessed that in a "live" world café, she hasn't always been so diligent about making sure she moves to a new conversation between rounds, noting that it's tempting to stay with friends rather than diligently seek out new conversations with diverse colleagues. The virtual breakout rooms remove that temptation because they automatically shuffled participants—truly honoring the intent of the world café structure.

Another participant noted that during a live world café it is sometimes a challenge to focus on the table conversation, particularly in very large settings with less than optimal acoustics. In the breakout, conversations are confined to the participants in the room, and that made it much easier to focus. And no need for name tags, as everyone's name appears right below their video image.

Participants also noted that the harvest sharing via the chat window made it much easier to immediately see the thinking of other groups—something that isn't always clear when folks are writing on sticky notes that get posted on a wall. Unless participants diligently move to the wall—and are able to decipher everyone's handwriting—the overall harvest is not as obvious. The chat window made it very clear where patterns and themes were emerging for the group as a whole.

The true measure of success came when we held our check out and invited folks to leave when they wished but offered to stay in the session longer in case there were questions or a desire to continue the conversation. That we ran more than a half hour longer than the planned two-hour session is a testament to the group's engagement! The benefits of an online world café might encourage us to use it even when social distancing isn't mandated.

Stefani Hite is a professional learning facilitator entering her fourth decade in education with experience as a classroom teacher, school administrator, and international school leader. Her doctoral research investigated conditions critical to successful improvement implementation. An experienced learning designer, Stef specializes in supporting organizations around systemic-change initiatives such as process improvement, design thinking, and participatory leadership with a specific focus on building collective efficacy. Connect with Stef on Twitter

Photo courtesy of Getty Images. 

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